Research Brief

December 2, 2019

Promise and Peril in the Smart City: Local Government in the Age of Digital Urbanism

Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Policymakers must be smart when thinking about the smart city trend and ensure that the technologies are not adopted only for their promised efficiencies.

Lately, a growing number of urbanists, planners, technology companies, and governance experts have started to use the term smart city. But, even if a growing number of people got familiar with what the term entices, the consensus about exactly what it defines is yet to be found. While some define smart cities in terms of using emerging and established technologies to improve the performance of municipal systems, some others take a more expansive view that embeds these new systems in a broader vision of urban regions characterized by innovation-based economic activity, a highly educated labour force, and policy-making that leverages these new technologies to confront stubborn urban problems.

Even though there is still a consensus to be found on the definition, one thing is sure: the market for smart-city technologies such as cutting edge networked sensors, big-data repositories, powerful analytics software, and smart grids has gathered momentum. This momentum is mainly due to the fact that leading technology suppliers develop products and services geared to this domain. It is now a common thing that entire new communities are being developed using smart-city systems, in some cases as proof-of-concept living labs.

As the rapid adoption of consumer and security technologies do not fall under the conventional smart city definition they also have far-reaching impacts on municipal systems (such as housing, transportation, and policing), including those that have benefited from new smart-city systems. Municipal policymakers are facing the challenge of determining the degree of investment or procurement in purpose-built smart-city technologies while adapting regulatory and governance systems to respond to changes arising from the adoption of services such as Airbnb and Uber. Meanwhile, they still have to consider some unfamiliar issues in responding to smart-city developments, including equity, privacy, algorithmic bias, and data governance.

In conclusion, while urban regions that invest in smart-city technologies come in all shapes and sizes, there seems to be a connection between civic interest in technology solutions and the presence of technology-oriented employers.

Author: John Lorinc, IMFG Forum

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